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Hallé St Peter’s History

Victorian Ancoats

It wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution that Ancoats became more than a small collection of houses and fields. It was in some of these fields however that the factories which lead to Manchester becoming one of the most important industrial districts in the world were built.

By the time St. Peter’s was built in 1859 Ancoats had been transformed from a small township into a bustling and overcrowded industrial suburb with a population of more than 50,000. Its landmark buildings had become the huge red-bricked factories which stood between the Ashton and Rochdale Canals.

The area was dominated by a working-class population, largely composed of migrants, who had come there to look for work in the cotton factories and other industries. The lives of most of these people were a struggle, as they had to live in desperate living conditions in badly built, cramped back-to-back houses and work incredibly hard for little money.

Other than factories, workshops and houses Ancoats had few public buildings. Before 1840 there were no Anglican churches in Ancoats at all. In such a deprived area it became clear that Ancoats desperately needed more churches. A committee of influential middle-class Anglicans set about in making plans to build St. Peter’s.

It was not an easy task to find a site for the new church in an area that was so heavily built up, but eventually the site at the junction of Blossom Street and Murray Street was chosen. Once built the church could seat up to 1,336 people. It was consecrated at three o’clock on Saturday 14 January 1860 and a Sunday school opened in 1863.


Building St. Peter’s

Other than factories, workshops and houses Ancoats had few public buildings. Before 1840 there were no Anglican churches in Ancoats at all. In such a deprived area it became clear that Ancoats desperately needed more churches. A committee of influential middle-class Anglicans set about in making plans to build St. Peter’s.

It was not an easy task to find a site for the new church in an area that was so heavily built up, but eventually the site at the junction of Blossom Street and Murray Street was chosen.

The Church was built in 1859 to designs by Isaac Holden, the founder chairman of the Manchester Society of Architects, who was able to design in a number of continental styles, and the building was consecrated in 1860. Although money had been raised by donations from wealthy Anglicans the church had to be built on a limited budget and the firm had to be imaginative and practical in their design. For example, brick was used instead of the more expensive stone.

The semi-circular apse at the east end of the church helped it to stand out amongst the straight lined and angular Mill buildings. It was described by local press as ‘a handsome church for a poor neighbourhood.’

It was the first Anglican Church to be built in this predominantly Roman Catholic community and was one of the initial phases of church building undertaken by Bishop Prince Lee, Manchester’s first Anglican Bishop, following the creation of the Manchester Diocese. Lee noticed the growing population of Ancoats (14,000 in the St Peter’s parish in 1860) and identified the need to have an established Church presence here, even though there would be no ‘pew rent’ from the very poor local community to pay for the construction.

A budget of £4,200 was set – hence the use of brick rather than the traditional but more expensive stone for the construction and the innovative use of cast iron columns to support the clerestory arches between the nave and aisles.

St Peter’s was originally designed to seat 1,350 people, but in the early 1900s the first floor gallery that had originally occupied three sides of the church, was greatly altered, the side aisle sections being removed and the remaining west end portion being extended to pass across the whole end of the church. This must have reduced the seating capacity by about 300.

Once built the church could seat up to 1,336 people. It was consecrated at three o’clock on Saturday 14 January 1860 and a Sunday school opened in 1863.


Decline and Restoration

Post-war Decline

By the mid 1950s a combination of economic, social and cultural issues led to an ever-growing number of inner-city churches being closed. A decline of the industry in Ancoats along with the slum clearance now taking place resulted in less and less people living in the parish of St. Peter’s.

The population of Ancoats greatly declined and the proportion of regular churchgoers in the community decreased significantly. In the late 1950s, the congregation was joined by that of the nearby St James’ Church and briefly became known colloquially as ‘St Peter’s and Little Jimmies’. St. Peter’s desperately needed repairs but, with a declining congregation, struggled to ever raise enough money for them. The size of the congregation soon became unsustainable again, however, and the church closed shortly after its centenary in 1960.

So steep was the fall in the population of Ancoats that by 1973 the number of people living there was as little as at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

Twenty-five years of mixed use followed, from University theatre prop storage to a knitting factory. The building was listed (grade 2) in 1989 as part of the designation of the Ancoats Conservation Area but in the early 1990s it was abandoned, purchased by a developer with long-term plans to convert it to residential use.

The building suffered vandalism and all its internal fittings (including pews with cast iron ends) and its external railings were stolen. Slates were stripped from parts of the roofs and squatters caused localised fires, leading in the end to the total loss of the fluted roof at the top of the tower. St Peter’s was left to rot, a symbol of wider neglect and dereliction of Ancoats.

Restoration

In 1995 the Ancoats Buildings Preservation Trust (ABPT) was established with the intention of redeveloping some of the key buildings in the conservation area. In 1998 initial work began to restore St. Peter’s. By 2003 a major grant had been confirmed from the Heritage Lottery Fund as well as others from English Heritage, the Architectural Heritage Fund and the Northwest Regional Development Agency.

The enveloping project involved the re-roofing of the building (using corrugated metal sheets in the aisle and apse areas as a temporary measure, for reasons of economy) and high level brickwork repairs, but left the interior as a stripped-out shell and all the window openings boarded up.

Safeguarding the building was a significant catalyst for the regeneration of the Ancoats Conservation Area. The restored tower became known as the ‘beacon of hope’ for the area.

The level of vandalism and theft that St. Peter’s had seen mean that the restoration project was challenging. Wherever possible, St. Peter’s was restored to look as it would have done originally. Remnants of the original stained glass and of the paint on the interior walls were used to recreate similar new versions.


Hallé and St Peter’s

St Peter’s Church is now a permanent rehearsal centre for the Hallé ensembles and a resource for the whole community.

The construction of St Peter’s used mill technology with brick and narrow iron beams creating a light and spacious building, perfect for conversion into a space for the Hallé’s rehearsal and recording needs.

This restoration is Phase One of a longer term project to build an extension on the adjoining site to provide workshop, archive and other facilities.